The melanocortin receptor (MCR) system has been studied extensively for its role in feeding and sexual behavior, but effects on social behavior have received little attention. α-MSH interacts with neural systems involved in sociality, including oxytocin, dopamine, and opioid systems. Acute melanotan-II (MTII), an MC3/4R agonist, potentiates brain oxytocin (OT) release and facilitates OT-dependent partner preference formation in socially monogamous prairie voles. Here we examined the long-term impact of early-life MCR stimulation on hypothalamic neuronal activity and social development in prairie voles. Male and female voles were given daily subcutaneous injections of 10 mg/kg MTII or saline between postnatal days (PND) 1-7. Neonatally-treated males displayed a reduction in initiated play fighting bouts as juveniles compared to control males. Neonatal exposure to MTII facilitated partner preference formation in adult females, but not males, after a brief cohabitation with an opposite-sex partner. Acute MTII injection elicited a significant burst of the immediate early gene EGR-1 immunoreactivity in hypothalamic OT, vasopressin, and corticotrophin releasing factor neurons, when tested in PND 6-7 animals. Daily neonatal treatment with 1 mg/kg of a more selective, brain penetrant MC4R agonist, PF44687, promoted adult partner preferences in both females and males compared with vehicle controls. Thus, developmental exposure to MCR agonists lead to a persistent change in social behavior, suggestive of structural or functional changes in the neural circuits involved in the formation of social relationships.
Keywords: Early experience; Melanocortin receptor; Melanotan-II; Oxytocin; Prairie voles; Social behavior.
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